In-depth, hands-on chassis training focuses on how to maintain and operate motorhomes.
By Mark Quasius, F333630
Motorhomes are complex. If you own one but don’t understand how to properly operate and maintain it, you may incur some expensive lessons.
Reading the owners manual may not be enough. And although a dealer is supposed to provide a complete tutorial on all of the features and components of a new motorhome, not all dealers do a good job; even if they do, the sheer volume of facts easily can result in information overload. In the case of preowned motorhomes, sometimes even less information is available, so buyers may try to decipher a stack of manuals or go online for information, which may or may not be accurate.
Proper maintenance of a motorhome’s chassis is especially important in terms of helping to avoid expensive repair bills. A do-it-yourselfer can save money by maintaining his or her own RV, but the owner must have the knowledge to perform such tasks correctly. And an owner who prefers to take the motorhome to a service center must know how to communicate maintenance needs to a service writer to ensure that everything gets done according to the correct service schedule.
In short, many motorhome owners can benefit from attending Spartan RV Owners Training Academy, as my wife, Leann, and I did the second full week of October 2015.
Spartan Motors Inc. produces diesel-powered chassis for motorhome manufacturers such as Entegra Coach, Foretravel Motorcoach, and Newmar. Spartan officials recognized the need for chassis training for owners after receiving numerous requests from customers, including members of FMCA’s Spartan Chassis International chapter (www.spartanfmca.com).
Spartan first offered a beta training program in 2009, when 20 coach owners registered for three sessions at a fairground. Spartan officials quickly realized that lying on the ground to look underneath coaches wasn’t ideal.
In 2010, the classes moved to the Spartan plant in Charlotte, Michigan, and Spartan’s training academy was born. That year, the company hosted four sessions and a total of 29 coach owners at the Spartan training center, where each motorhome could be driven over a service pit, making it easier to view the chassis. The training included a walk-around portion that consisted of one-on-one interaction with an instructor who went over each coach, explaining components and answering questions. Fifty-amp parking spaces were added at the campus so attendees could live in their motorhomes while attending the program.
The academy continued to expand. By 2013, a seventh session and partner training were added. Several motorhome manufacturers were invited to participate. That year, Spartan partnered with Newmar for two sessions and with Entegra for four sessions. Representatives of each manufacturer spent one day of the five-day course explaining the various house components unique to its coaches. That proved to be quite popular, so the number of sessions grew to 11 in 2015, six of them Entegra-specific.
The academy’s popularity continues to grow, as does the waiting list. Fourteen sessions — eight of them Entegra-specific — are planned for 2016, including one masters session for those who have previously attended RV owner training. Snowbirds who migrate north in the spring and south before winter tend to schedule service work to coincide with their travels, so that’s a great time to attend. Each session accommodates up to seven motorhomes and 14 people.
The training is designed for couples, although that is not mandatory; if a spouse prefers to skip one or more class days, it’s okay. However, spouses usually find the training interesting and stay for most, if not all, of the session. They gain a sense of security in knowing how the various motorhome systems operate.
Attendees arrived on Sunday, the day before the official program start, and found reserved parking spots marked with their names. Each double-wide spot allows space for a towed vehicle. A 50-amp power pedestal is provided.
Monday began at 7:00 a.m. in the customer service lounge. If a motorhome required service work, the owner discussed it with a service writer. Even if no work was needed, each coach was brought into the facility for a four-point or six-point weighing; that information would be used in the class later. Well-behaved pets are welcome in the customer lounge and in the classroom. Our 130-pound German shepherd made friends with everyone that first day while our coach was being serviced.
The continental breakfast, served in the classroom and available each morning, was a good time to meet fellow owners and instructors before class began at 8:00 a.m. Our trainer was Mike O’Neil, commonly referred to as Big Mike. When asked his height, the standard answer was “5 feet 20.” He combines a wealth of knowledge with an ability to entertain with tales of his life’s events.
The classroom is quite large — big enough for a brand-new chassis to be driven through an overhead door and parked at the head of the room for everyone to see for the duration of the class. This allowed the instructor to show us the locations of various components. Everyone occasionally surrounded the chassis to view the components up close and learn to perform various tasks. PowerPoint presentations were projected on the back wall. Each attendee received a manual with all of the teaching material, information, and specs related to their coach’s VIN number, as well as a USB flash drive containing everything covered during the session.
Tables were arranged in a half circle so that attendees had their own space for teaching materials, snacks, and beverages. Discussion sometimes focused on components that were displayed in front of the room. Various demonstration panels around the room explained the operation of components such as air brakes.
The first day’s instruction began with the chassis electrical system. Electrical diagrams were discussed. Each attendee was asked to highlight certain circuits as part of an exercise. When this exercise was completed, the formerly cryptic wiring diagrams were easily understood.
After the midmorning break, the class delved into basic maintenance. Discussion focused on fluid change intervals and filters. This is one of the academy’s most important subject areas.
Lunch was served in the break room, but everyone took their plates back to the table to continue networking with class members and Spartan trainers. Spartan, by the way, feeds attendees well. This day, the large buffet included lasagna and chicken. A tasty dessert was always provided.
After lunch, we were introduced to the chassis air systems. The importance of proper ride height was stressed. The air system was covered thoroughly, with hands-on instruction regarding troubleshooting a system that is not up to specs. We also visited the factory production line to see a chassis being built.
A highlight of the course is a personal walk-around of your own chassis. Two coaches were scheduled for the first evening. In the service center, a trainer drove the motorhomes over a pit so that the owners could comfortably access the underside of their coaches. Each walk-around generally lasts about two hours, depending on how many questions an owner has. Trainers take as long as necessary to answer everything. They offer maintenance tips, make note of service points, and point out potential problem areas.
Tuesday’s first topic was Cummins engines. Attendees asked about proper maintenance and the unique requirements of an emission system that requires diesel exhaust fluid, also called DEF. A discussion of engine service codes seamlessly segued to Allison transmissions, including a demonstration of how to use Allison’s shift keypad to retrieve all sorts of service information and diagnostic codes.
After another great lunch, teaching duties were handed to Phil “PJ” Clanton, Entegra Coach’s senior customer service technical representative, who knows those motorhomes inside and out. The seminar began with an explanation of how an inverter operates. But instead of just talking about it, PJ used the inverter to operate an ice cream maker. By the time the presentation and discussion ended, ice cream was ready for everyone to enjoy.
The discussion then turned to the automatic generator start module. Inverters and AGS modules frequently don’t work as well as intended, a result of less-than-optimal settings. PJ gave us a homework assignment. First, we reset both of those systems to factory defaults; then we were to change settings, according to his instructions, to make everything operate smoothly.
That evening, our chassis and two others were scheduled for the chassis walk-around. After a light supper in the classroom, we headed to the service center, where Big Mike drove our coach into a bay with a pit. The walk-around began with an inspection of the battery compartment, moved to the engine compartment, and then proceeded into the pit. At that point the walk-around turned into a walk-under. I wanted lots of detailed information, and Big Mike was willing to take as long as needed to ensure I didn’t miss anything. We didn’t return to our parking spot until about 9:30 that evening.
The Entegra-specific portion of the class continued on Wednesday morning. PJ made sure we all did our homework with the AGS and inverter settings, and then he turned his attention to the operation of the slideouts and leveling jacks. He explained how they function, the best operating practices, and how to troubleshoot or to get inoperative systems to work until the coach can be taken to a service center. The Aqua-Hot hydronic heating system also was covered in detail. He answered any remaining questions regarding the Entegra side of things, and that took us to lunch. It was extra special this day, with prime rib and meatballs as the main dishes. After lunch, a class photo was taken, and then it was on to driver training.
Our professional driving instructor, Bill Charron, spent the afternoon explaining tips and techniques for driving large vehicles, including the use of reference points. That evening, the final two coaches went into the service center for their walk-arounds.
Thursday began with a catered breakfast. Technicians from the service center and other key Spartan personnel ate with us, so we all had a great time talking and sharing. A small graduation ceremony followed breakfast. Class photos were handed out, certificates were awarded, and each attendee received a pair of really nice folding chairs.
Next up was road and range driving instruction. The morning featured an extensive class related to air brake systems, as well as tire pressures and maintenance. Each coach’s weight ticket was used to determine proper inflation pressures. After a multimedia presentation about air brakes, the class moved to a demo panel that was outfitted with every air brake component. Pressure gauges were inserted to illustrate what happens under different conditions and how the components interact with each other.
Attendees also were invited to give feedback about the academy to the trainers, noting what they did or didn’t like, and suggesting areas that needed improvement.
Road and range driving instruction continued for those who had not yet done it. Others were free to leave or to spend the weekend in the parking lot.
The driving class cannot be emphasized enough. No matter how long you’ve been behind the wheel, there are always things you can learn. It’s especially valuable for copilots to drive the coach. Many copilots have never driven a motorhome. Yet, there may come a time, such as in a medical emergency, when they have to, if only to get it to a safe place.
We started in the classroom, and then the instructor took each couple, one at a time, to a huge parking lot where safety cones were set up. This portion of the day was broken into segments. When it was our turn, I drove first while Leann watched from the copilot’s seat and Bill instructed from outside. After each segment, we switched places and Leann drove.
In the first segment, our task was to determine the position of the front and back of the coach in relation to cones. After a bit of instruction, Leann and I both were able, without difficulty, to put the coach exactly on a line, such as a crosswalk or parking stripe.
For the second segment, we had to know exactly where the rear of the coach was, without using the rearview camera. Instead, we were to rely on a reference point on the side of the coach near the rear wheel well. The goal was to back up to a safety cone without knocking it over or being too far away. After a few tries, we succeeded.
The next segment involved two skills: judging how far to pull out when making right-angle turns on a city street; and knowing where to pivot the coach when making a 90-degree turn in reverse. Once we had that down, we used everything we had learned to approach a virtual campsite and back in from a narrow road. This all was laid out with safety cones in the big lot.
Finally, it was time to hit the road. Bill knew our limits and how far to challenge us without overwhelming us. I drove to a shopping mall parking lot, made tight turns around a stray shopping cart, and then backed into a loading dock using all of the techniques that we had learned.
When it was Leann’s turn, Bill first told her to perform simple maneuvers, but eventually he had her drive all the way back to the Spartan plant. Her confidence level rose exponentially, which is typical in these courses. Most copilots who have never driven leave knowing that they can, even if they don’t plan on doing it on a regular basis. Later, Bill presented us with a certificate of completion of the driving course. People who receive it may be eligible for an insurance discount, depending on the carrier.
I expected the class to be good, but it was much better than I anticipated. I’ve driven more than 100,000 miles in Type A motorhomes over the last 13 years, but I still was able to walk away with some driving and operating tips I hadn’t known about.
The information about how to maintain our coach was invaluable. I do most of the maintenance myself, and the training offered insight regarding what needs to be done, and how often. Even if I didn’t service my own coach, the information would help me to communicate intelligently with a service writer to ensure that everything was done on schedule. Should a problem occur, I now know how to properly diagnose it and determine its severity.
The Entegra part of the class also was a big help. Each coach is a little different. Technology changes. The owners manuals never seem to be completely up-to-date or detailed enough, but PJ’s presentation filled in all the blanks and was a valuable addition to the session.
A huge part of each session is the owner’s walk-around of his or her own chassis. Having a technician explain things, answer questions, and point out exactly where everything is really helps to improve owners’ understanding of their motorhomes.
Spartan Academy is strictly about training. It involves no sales pitch or marketing. It’s designed to provide owners who already have a Spartan chassis with the training they need to properly operate and maintain their coaches. Spartan does offer a deep discount on parts and filters to attendees, so it’s a great time to stock up and save some money. All in all, I left feeling 100 percent satisfied and more knowledgeable about my coach.
Each training session will host up to seven RVs (up to two people per RV, for $1,290). For a list of session dates or to register, visit www.spartanchassis.com/academy. For more information, call (517) 543-6400, ext. 3122.